Silicon Valley: TV Review
HBO finds its best and funniest full-on comedy in years with this Mike Judge creation, and it may even tap into that most elusive thing -- a wide audience.
It's not exactly clear whether HBO ever intended to create a comedy brand wrapped around super creative, not very popular niche shows. It's probably more likely that it wanted two or four other shows in the vein of Sex and the City -- or even Entourage. Hell, at this point, it might even go for another Curb Your Enthusiasm (or, barring that, just a firm commitment from Larry David to make another season of Curb).
But reputations firm up over time by repetition and expectations. HBO is no stranger to shows like Bored to Death, Family Tree, Flight of the Conchords, Eastbound & Down, Enlightened, Hello Ladies and the recently renewed but barely seen Getting On, which wasn't exactly a barn-burner in the ratings. None of those comedies were. Even Girls, its best half-hour and certainly its most written about series, is more of a dramedy and isn't a gigantic ratings magnet. Veep, which is hilarious and has confidently found its stride in season two, may eventually break out but doesn't seem to have the mass-appeal prospects of the Silicon Valley premise.
Which makes Silicon Valley stand out all the more. The Mike Judge-created series about life in modern-day Silicon Valley is, immediately, HBO's funniest series and quite possibly the most likely to lure a large audience. The series had its world premiere at the SXSW festival Monday, but it will premiere for everybody else on April 6 almost fully formed. The pilot is flat-out brilliant, and both the concept and target are broad. There's material to mine here for ages and it has the ability -- no guarantees, of course -- to be HBO's first bona-fide, broad-based comedy hit.
Nerds and geeks rule the comedy world, and almost everybody is either a slave to or an acolyte of technology, which is where Silicon Valley mines its humor.
Judge (Office Space, Beavis & Butt-head, King of the Hill) worked as an engineer in Silicon Valley in the late '80s, so he has some understanding of the culture. But the series is very much of the current age, skewering Google-like companies and tiny start-ups with equal fervor. No angel investor or wannabe hacker is spared the knife that Judge and co-creators John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky slash around with reckless abandon.
Whether employees are taking "bike meetings" or going to voluntary company retreats that are clearly not voluntary, Judge, Altschuler and Krinsky are there to satirize the culture of tech, nerdism, geek-speak and the lust for zeros and ones that go faster and can be compacted smaller each year. Or month.
The series focuses on Richard (Thomas Middleditch; Search Party, The Office) who works at Hooli, a tech company run by Gavin Belson (Matt Ross; Magic City, Big Love), who never lets a moment pass when that moment could be selling himself to the world as a rich do-gooder. Skewering tech bosses who are so filthy rich they can only justify it by saying their products are "making the world a better place" is just one of the spot-on jokes that Silicon Valley trades in.
Richard is painfully shy, socially awkward and gets grief from others higher on the nerd totem pole. He has developed, on the side, a product called Pied Piper that allows musicians to see if their music and lyrics have been used before by others. It's not a killer app but, at the center of it, Richard has created a killer algorithm that sets a new, faster and smaller-sized standard. It could be worth billions.
That gets Belson bidding for it, but also opens up the eyes of eccentric billionaire venture capitalist Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch; The Master, Vicky Cristina Barcelona -- who sadly died during filming of the series in December 2013), who Richard met at -- wait for it -- a TED talk. Both power players have different approaches. Belson quickly goes from an initial offer of $600,000 and a promotion to, in escalating moments of desperation, $10 million. Gregory offers only $250,000 and 5 percent of the company -- but Richard would still own the rest of the company. Sell out and lose control or build your dream and take your chances? It's the question Richard involuntarily throws up over.
Of course, Richard is already down 10 percent to Erlich (T.J. Miller), who became a millionaire by selling his own much lamer idea and who now hosts a Hacker Hostel -- his home, essentially, to programmers who want to live there for free and develop things in exchange for 10 percent of whatever company they build or sell.
Miller is the pop-out performer on Silicon Valley because he gets so many great lines. But others are equally strong in different ways, including fellow incubator house guests as Richard's best friend Big Head (Josh Brener, Glory Daze), Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani, Portlandia) and Gilfoyle (Martin Starr, Freaks and Geeks). Joining them is Belson's former head of business development, Jared (Zach Woods; In the Loop, The Office), another nerdy, nervous type who thinks Richard is a hero for turning down the $10 million, even if that decision is still making Richard throw up. (Amanda Crew has a role as Gregory's assistant that will hopefully grow, since Silicon Valley lacks a strong female presence.)
Now that Richard knows he's got a dream product, he needs to make it happen with the relatively paltry money Gregory has invested. Not selling out while living in Palo Alto, Calif., and commuting to San Jose, Calif.? Almost impossible. But the dream is there for the taking.
Judge and company milk innumerable hilarious moments from the tech world in the pilot (listing them would only ruin it for you), and though Silicon Valley takes a slight dip in the second episode, it moves skyward again in the third episode and beyond. Again, this series needs no time to find its legs. Its premiere is confident, spot-on, searingly funny and uncommonly insightful.
Are some of the tech topics and habits of that environ too easy to spoof? Sure. But even when you see a good joke coming, it's often funnier than you expected. And Silicon Valley has countless moments in the first handful of episodes where sharp, satirical stabs at the holier-than-thou, we've-inherited-the-world, POV of the real Silicon Valley are almost too close to the funny bone.
That's a great sign -- it means Judge and fellow creators know who we are, as users of technology. They know what we love and hate, what we use all the time, when we use social media and why that's inherently funny or helpful (to, say, a firm wanting to capitalize on that information).
Mostly though, Silicon Valley has a strong cast that can pull off all kinds of comedy. It has tech lust, which so many of us swim in, for a starting point. And it has consistently funny writing. It's the best, most wide-appeal show that HBO has had in ages. Now the channel will just need to find out if any of the people it will appeal to are subscribers.